Bias is a dirty word in American journalism. We strive to avoid it in our storytelling, yet it naturally creeps in. Who we are, how and where we were raised, and what we believe create unconscious biases that manifest in our story and source selection, story organization and general storytelling techniques.
We try to reduce that bias by diversifying sources, telling stories from off the beaten path and seeking balance when covering divisive issues. Still, as long as we are part of the equation, our bias creeps in.
In my advanced class, Participatory Journalism, I challenged my students to let go of their inherent biases and engage in a unique trust free-fall. I borrowed a page from sociology to help them understand the power and impact of putting themselves in a shared situation and letting sources speak for themselves: photo elicitation.
A colleague introduced me to the term during the Broadcast Education Association conference in Las Vegas last year. In sociology, it involves giving sources or subjects the camera and letting them take photographs of their own experience. An interviewer would then review and interpret those photos as a means of gaining insight into their subjects’ mindsets. The practice has been used to study homeless men and women with mental illnesses, learn about how low-income families prepare their children for kindergarten and even examine why visitors kept returning to a remote marine park in Australia.
My colleague challenged us to apply a similar strategy when pursuing journalistic stories, and the ideas came gushing forward. What if journalists had to rely on their sources to convey their own experiences? What emerged from my brainstorming was a radical idea that required my students to put their trust – and a portion of their grade – in each other’s hands.
Getting Our Feet Wet
I didn’t just want to take my students out of their comfort zone; I wanted to break it. On a cool, rainy morning in May, my students nervously boarded a bus for their first trust exercise – a kayak trip exploring a heavily wooded pond just outside of town. About half of the group had never been kayaking before, and the conditions were hardly favorable. Still, they swallowed their inhibitions and every student braved the experience with me.
Prior to embarking on the trip, my students received their marching orders. They were to bring a digital camera (phone, handheld, GoPro or otherwise) and capture a minimum of 20 photos that adhere to best practices in photojournalism. Simple photos of scenery and wildlife were forbidden – they needed to capture the human experience, all while enduring the experience themselves.
Their end game would be to compose a photo essay, for which they would imagine a theme, choose 7 to 10 pictures to illustrate it and provide corresponding captions. For most of them, this was old-hat, on par with many other assignments they had done before. Then, I hit them with the twist: they would not be allowed to use any of their own pictures for their photo essay.
Suddenly, the path was unclear. Although they would be experiencing the trip for themselves, they would not be able to use the photos they took from their own perspective to tell the story. They would have to truly examine the excursion through the eyes of their sources and compose a story that may be vastly different from their own. The source would, in essence, become the reporter.
Taking Back the Story
After we dried off and picked the branches out of our hair, the students set to work examining each other’s photos and settling on themes. Each student uploaded their best pictures to the photo-sharing site Shutterfly, and they tagged photos with their name so others would know who took what.
After viewing the photos, a few themes emerged, including:
- Capturing raw emotions of kayaking with classmates as friends
- The joys and sorrows of kayaking
- Salisbury students get their sea legs on class kayak pond trip
Students then had to add context to the photo essay through captions. The most obvious choice in many cases was to interview the subject of the photo to get his or her reactions to and reflections on the action captured in the photo. But employing the strategy prescribed through traditional photo elicitation practices, I urged students to go beyond the subject to interview the photographer. I gave a few examples of questions to ask:
- What were you hoping to capture in this picture?
- How do you think this picture relates to the overall experience?
- How did you interpret the action in this picture?
There were obvious physical challenges to the activity: keeping the camera dry, capturing photos while trying to navigate a kayak and getting up close to inexperienced boaters who were spread out all over the pond. But those challenges had learning objectives, too. As participatory journalists, we needed to learn both the opportunities and difficulties associated with putting ourselves in the story. We can get a better look at our sources’ experiences, but we still have to manage our own.
The real takeaway was the lesson in bias control. Even in employing photo elicitation tactics, journalists still act as gatekeepers. Although we didn’t take the photos, we still used our own judgments to visualize a theme and choose pictures that illustrated it. By forcing students to remove their own experience from their work, they were able to see the story from a broader perspective that encapsulated multiple angles and diverse viewpoints.
Placing your story in your source’s hands may seem frightening, and it may not always produce quality results. But pushing away from your personal biases to dig deeper into a human experience that interviews alone cannot hope to capture might prove to be worth the risk.
Jennifer Brannock Cox is an assistant professor in the Communication Arts Department at Salisbury University. She received her Ph.D. from the University of Florida in Mass Communication. Cox worked as a reporter in newsrooms throughout Florida, covering multiple beats for print and online publications. Cox teaches courses in journalism, incorporating new and social media techniques alongside traditional media writing skills and theory. She maintains her journalism skills working as a freelance multimedia reporter for local publications.